Sunday, 13 July 2014

Agent Orange, Hægefjell

It began to rain as we were gearing up at the bottom of the route. It fell gently so it made sense to start climbing before the slabbed rock begun to lose friction. Hopefully it would pass, otherwise we we be abseiling from the first belay. Quickly I padded up the rock, clipping the spaced bolts that were painted orange in relation to the route's name Agent Orange. My foot slipped on some smooth quartz embedded in the rock, I stammered but stayed put. The forecast had looked unstable so choosing an easier route with bolt belays looked a safe bet in light of a possible quick escape. The forecast also looked to get worse as the day progressed so something uncomplicated made sense.

Fortunately the rain passed and any thoughts of retreat quickly passed with it. More slab padding, bolt clipping antics followed on the second pitch before my trad rack finally needed to be utilised on the third pitch.

The third pitch proved to be a beautiful one, following a curving corner crack with some lovely positive lay-backing moves, and backed-up by positive cam placements. A couple of bolts protected a short unprotectable off-width section before the corner broke left below a shallow roof. I traversed beneath this, placing some solid cams on long runners until the roof ended and the corner continued up the slabs again. Our respective guidebooks graded it 5- and 5+ and it felt somewhere in the middle.

Climbing the initial corner on the third pitch
Photo by Anna Kennedy
Ann at the top of the third pitch
Steady climbing followed for the remaining pitches with a sequence of easy shallow corners that disrupted the surrounding smooth faces. The features thinned out for the final couple of pitches and the bolts reappeared to supplement the lack of natural protection.

Top of the fifth pitch
Start of the sixth pitch
One of the problems with the bolts being orange was that sometimes they were a little hard to spot when the granite was a similar hue. Often the paint was faded and partially worn away, which helped camourflage their presence. Sometimes I would scan the rock for the next bolt only to find one under my nose. The last pitch was graded 5- with (four) bolts in-situ so Anna started up the pitch without the trad rack in order to save time and weight, expecting the climbing to be easy and bolts where needed. But from a matter of metres below the top of the route she ab'ed back down to me, unsure where the final bolt lay and too far above the last bolt to commit to the final moves up a short wall. I failed to spot the bolt as well but my head was fortunately in better shape to commit to the final moves. Only during the abseil descent did we spot the bolt in the middle of the short wall.

The bolt belays allowed a swift descent to the base of the route. After yesterday's adventure on Mota Sola, Orange Orange felt very steady apart from some careful climbing on the third pitch. It definately fell into the catagory of 'fun' though and was the perfect route for a quick getaway before the rain storms arrived.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Mot Sola (n6-), Hægefjell

An army of angry midges were waiting for us to open our tent doors in the morning. Not quite as violent as their Scottish counterparts but clearly the contents of my vascular system in hot demand. Breakfast and morning preparation involved the futile, inefficient act of pacing around in no particular direction so as to avoid the cloud of midges.

We were camped beneath Hægefjell, a broad expanse of granite that consisted of smoother slabs on the right side but more featured, steeper climbing on the left side. Many of the routes on the left side were hard but the obvious weakness drew my eye. The route called Mot Sola followed a sequence of cracks and corners up the face and screamed out to be climbed. I knew the route was often wet, which made the current dry conditions an excellent time to attempt it.

Hægefjell - Mot Sola is just left of centre

We opted for the Original Start, which climbed two pitches of expansive, smooth slabs in order the reach a main corner system, where most people traversed in to commence the climbing. We weren't entirely sure of the line up the slabs but found a sequence of shallow grooves that allowed for some spaced protected climbing through largely compact rock. The supposed bolt belay no where to be seen but a large boulder hidden behind a patch of shrubs was just as welcome. Certainly the oldest bolt that I have ever seen presented near the start of the second pitch. The slabs became more rippled, which made for easier climbing. No need for any short linking pitch as described in the Rockfax guide.


Anna climbing the second pitch of the Original Start towards the main corner system
Retro bolt-clipping
The excitement really started once into the corner system on the third pitch. This was anything between n5 and 6- depending on which guidebook we referenced (maybe n5+). Some interesting layback moves above good gear brought me to large ledge with a pair of belay bolts out of reach above my head. I needed to lay-back a crack to the right in order to clip the bolts. I can only assume there was a layer of snow at the belay when bolts were added.

Pitch three
3m high belay bolts
The climbing continued up another corner, which further improved in quality. Anna led what was maybe the most perfect pitch of the climb, both in terms of aesthetics and quality of climbing. First lay-backing and bridging a lower corner crack before traversing left via a balancy move to a higher crack running parallel. Sustained climbing with plenty of gear and an awkward hanging belay at two thirds the height in the corner. The remainder of the corner continued in the same vein before opening out into undulating ground in the upper half of the pitch.

Great climbing on pitch 4
Anna making the tricky move from the right to left crack
View back to Anna's hanging belay from the fourth pitch
The subsequent crux pitch had a stiff start... a jamming crack that needed to be gained above a small roof. Maybe gaining it would have been easy were my hand jamming technique half up to scratch (but then finger locks are never going to be my forte). Having failed miserably with my jamming at first attempt I reverted to tried and tested lay-backing off a low block beneath the roof on the right that had indentations on either side for my finger tips. Desperately I threw my legs high to a ledge to the left of the roof and then scrapped to gain the crack above the overhang. Not pretty but I just about effective. Easier, well-protected climbing followed above before cautiously breaking right across a wet slab to the belay.

Above the difficulties on the crux fifth pitch
Traverse at the top of pitch five
The next pitch was a surprise to the system. It was supposed to be n5 but involved a bouldery step directly above the belay onto a slab. The only protection being the belay bolts until a rusty peg could reached beyond the difficulties a short distance above. Mounting the step was relatively easy but pinning the feet to the steep lip of the slab was another matter. Twice Anna slipped off, grazing her shins on the edge of the slab on her second attempt and landing like a plank below my belay. After much pondering and experiementation with alternative lines she concluded there were no better options. Third attempt she managed to cling on enough to move up and clip the peg. I faired no better. Two failed attempts, including matching grazes down my shins on second attempt. The aid of a side pull to my right helped me stay put on the third attempt.

Traversing right through seapage on the sixth pitch
The final pitch also proved to be no push-over with some awkward moves above poor gear followed by some stiff lay-backing up an offwidth crack. Then easier climbing to the top of the route, rounding off what must be one of the best multi-pitch trad rock routes that I have climbed anywhere. The initial two slab pitches were nothing special but what followed was everything that I look for in a climb. A strong line, with sustained, continued interest, in a pristine environment. Even the descent through the forest back to the camp site was very pleasant.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Overraskelsen - Direkte variant (n5+), Skogshorn

We referred to the route description:

"Follow <something> towards the right up to <something>. Thereafter little <something>, until left around the corner and up a short crack / <something>. Belay on the top of this."

...We were experiencing a few navigational problems due to language difficulties with our guidebook. Usually in such situations I would just look at the pictures except these were equally baffling. The sketch of the route showed a dotted line passing through an assortment of chimneys and cracks but nothing was really to scale or with any points of reference. If we were following a line of bolts then this may have been fine but we were on a trad line. The initial pitch was not installing great confidence in my route-finding abilities in particular. It climbed a relatively obvious broad corner system but was very loose and vegetated. The trick being not to fall off with a piece rock still in your hand. Not what you would expect from a four star classic.

Skogshorn, in Hemsedal, looked a great proposition in the guidebook with multi-pitch trad routes up to 400m high on prominent buttresses and ridges. What's more the mountain looked like a large scale Clogwyn Du'r Arddu, only it was South facing. The direct variation of Overraskelsen, which wound it's way up one of the central buttresses looked the obvious choice route.

Skogshorn
For the first handful of pitches we faffed for too long trying to decide which way go. We too often made belays two thirds of the way up pitches in order to discuss route finding. The hours passed by, clouds developed, the winds picked up, and by the sixth pitch it began to rain. We were now high on the mountain with still three pitches to go - including the crux seventh pitch. Fortunately the rock quality had improved markedly since the first pitch and the climb was developing into something worthy of classic status. Urgently I climbed a beautifully positioned steep slab pillar, pulling on prominent edges and not worrying about gear too much. Better to climb dry rock with few runners than wet rock with many runners I thought. The climbing was steady enough and for now the light rain was failing to gain momentum.

Easy third pitch
Climbing towards the leaning slab (left centre)
Photo by Anna Kennedy
Then the crux slanting crack on the seventh pitch - fortunately steep enough to shelter from the rain and short enough to be over in a jiffy. Still the rain fell... one pitch to go. This involved a downward traverse before gaining an open slabby corner to the top. Traverses... slabs... all the things I like to avoid in the wet. I needed to slow down and protect the traverse, although this was no easy task. Seepage spilled down the rocks but above the traverse there was plenty of gear to ensure I would not slip far. Some recent evenings spent unintentionally climbing in the rain in and around Oslo had prepared me well for these conditions. Anna joined me at the top. 400m of climbing were now below us. No time to linger. Besides I was too cold to linger, what with foolishly being under-dressed in just a t-shirt and shorts (warm weather had been promised throughout the day).

Final pitch - After the traverse
Photo by Anna Kennedy
We bore East over the loose scree that littered the summit plateau. Anna at this point concluded that epics always happened to her whenever she went in the mountains, after which the weather evidently took pity and changed for the better. Things actually became rather pleasant and we were able to relax and enjoy the wonderful summit views of the surrounding lakes. This was after all our first big rock route since arriving in Norway.

View from the summit
We swung South where the guidebook vaguely indicated a descent off the summit plateau was possible. We slowly descended between cliffs eventually to follow a broad, loose gully that needed care to avoid a tumble. Unstable rocks littered the slopes, needing little encouragement to dislodge themselves. Maybe 150m from the bottom we made a short abseil to span some particularly loose ground. Anna went first. She was barely 10m below when I lifted my bag ready for my turn only to watch a dinner plate-size rock beneath it dislodge and tumble South. "Rock, rock, rock!!" I shouted in a panic. But there was no time... Anna did a little jig on the rope to try and avoid it but she had a matter of metres to adjust. It crashed into her right knee and then continued to the bottom of the gully. Anna paused. "Why do I feel that should hurt more than is does" she grimaced. Amazingly she appeared largely unhurt. I couldn't help think thinking that maybe there would be no climbing tomorrow once the swelling kicked in.

We could see the gully dropping away at the bottom of the cliffs and so prepared ourselves for another abseil. Anna spotted some tat in some rocks and then to our amazement we spotted a couple of abseil bolts. After two hours of patiently descending loose ground with little opportunity for rappels we couldn't contain our excitement at this 'gift'. A single abseil and we were back on the broad slopes beneath the cliffs. There was still some more scree bashing to be done but we were now below the difficulties and it was just a matter of time before we were back at the car.

Never so happy to see an abseil bolt!
It was 9pm by the time I started the engine. Our wild camping spot a few miles away was a logging area was infested with mosquitoes so late evening cooking over a stove didn't appeal. In desperation we knocked on the locked front door of a Chinese restaurant in Ullsåk in the hope that they would serve us. We were in luck. And what's more the premises was licenced.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Observatory Ridge (V,4), Ben Nevis

It was 2am by the time I arrived at the North Face car park on Friday night. Another epic drive from London. Firstly traffic hold-ups on the M6 North of Birmingham, then snow on the road North of Crianlarich. Tent pitched and alarm set for 5.30am. It snowed for much of the night.

Three hours after arrival. Time to pack up and go climbing
The coires were holding a lot of fresh snow above the CIC hut so breaking a trail halfway to the summit did not appeal. That said I was aware that the recent warm weather would likely have thawed the lower buttresses so a compromise was needed. We headed for Observatory Gully with a vague plan to climb the first route that looked in condition.

I had anticipated Observatory Buttress to be the right sort of altitude to withstand the recent thaw but this was just a vague hunch. I was more concerned about the presence of large cornices above the routes but visibility was too poor to confirm their whereabouts. The cliffs were buried in fresh snow. Wading halfway up Observatory Gully for a closer look with no clue about the route exits seemed silly business. Observatory Ridge was right on our doorstep and inviting us closer. No cornices to worry about and no wading to reach it. Another team was already on the route but time lost queuing seemed a lot more attractive than time lost battled up deep unstable snow to something higher.

Observatory Ridge conditions were tough and easily warranted tech 5. There was surprisingly little névé on the lower pitches. Evidently the thaw had been aggressive during the week. What ice remained was in very poor condition. Thin ice cascaded over the rocks but the slightest tap would lead to its immediate collapse. Even the turf was only partially frozen, which made climbing the initial corner on pitch three particularly hard work. Powder snow covered everything, which made progress slow and gear placements hard to find. Plenty of time to contemplate how sleep deprived I was feeling at each belay.

Start of the second pitch
Third pitch in tough condition
Snow fell in squally showers throughout the day often reducing visibility to close proximity. During its respites there didn't look to be much in the way of conditions on the surrounding cliffs. At least four teams had bailed off the Minus Three Buttress area. Observatory Gully was void of activity. Only the distant shouts from Tower Ridge indicated other climbers in the area. The Orion Face and Observatory Buttress areas looked thin on ice but with so much fresh snow it was difficult to be 100%. The fragile ice on Observatory Ridge didn't suggest much to be excited about elsewhere.

Fourth pitch. Climber up there... somewhere
By the time we were bashing up the final snow slopes of Zero Gully it was twilight. Finally some bomber névé with the difficulties long below us. It was 7.20pm by the time I hauled myself over the top of the route exhausted. Sanity restored though. Finally a decent route climbed this winter, and in very challenging conditions.

Easy upper slopes
By the time we had descended the tourist path and skirted the bog back to the North Side it was 11pm. An eleven hour drive, followed by three hours sleep, followed by sixteen hours on the hill... The maths didn't really add up. Something that did add up was that there would be no climbing tomorrow. The only thing planned was a lie-in.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Lochnagar

Lochnagar maybe wasn’t the best choice of venue given that we had only managed a couple of hours sleep on the roadside of the Old Military Road. Something with a shorter walk-in was probably more appropriate. Leaving London was as grim as ever. We had lost an hour stuck in grid-locked traffic on Fulham Palace Road and we were still obviously a long way from the M25. I won’t need to do this for much longer I keep reminding myself…

The morning’s weather was idealistic with blue skies, little wind and freezing temperatures. Much of Lochnagar’s cliffs were still plastered in deep snow though. The cornices above looked massive despite the thaw the previous Sunday. The avalanche forecast looked underrated for Northern aspects. We saw two massive avalanches trigger down Raeburn's Gully and continue down towards the loch. Maybe the biggest I have witnessed in Scotland.

The West Buttress looked the exception with less snow and minimal cornice. We dithered for too long trying to work out which route to climb - undoubtedly our downfall. Eventually we settled on Black Spout Buttress but by then it was 1pm. The snow was largely solid neve but the climbing took too long as protection needed time to uncover. I found no gear at all on the third pitch leading up to and across the traverse. ‘Make sure you fall on far side’ I thought to myself. At 6pm we bailed into Black Spout with a single abseil. Bailing off a route whose grade I would usually be happy to solo. I’m praying some decent late season conditions develop in order to make up for this season’s disappointment.

Plastered
The West Buttress
Second pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Third pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
The traverse

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Boyzone (WI3), Setesdal

What was I doing here?

...Climbing a south facing icefall in the afternoon with clear skies and temperatures barely freezing - if at all.

Seriously, what was I dong here? The snow on the approach was soft and wet. Signs of small avalanche debris beneath the route. The snow was too unstable to stop us skidding on the blank granite slabs beneath. Tomorrow's forecast was 3 degrees... the next day 4 degrees... the next day 5 degrees. The next day... warmer still but by then I would be home.

We bore left towards the trees to escape the lethal slabs. Victor slipped and took out Anna. Both clambered back to their feet. Anna now slightly more bruised. We were heading for Boyzone - a WI3 that was reportedly one of the only routes in condition in the Setesdal valley. The short approach suggested it would be the obvious choice given we had only arrived in the valley around 12pm. That said, a 200m route in less the perfect conditions was now seeming a slightly ambitious task. I donned my sunglasses and stripped to a single layer beneath my hardshell jacket.

I never thought I would use the words 'Boyzone' and 'impressive' in the same sentence
The good news is that I soon chilled out and enjoyed myself. The first couple of pitches were easy climbing up slabby ice. Despite the warm temperatures my axes felt secure, and my screws were... adequate. Rick climbed ahead with Victor in tow. Anna and me swung leads behind.

Second pitch
Top of the second pitch
Then the third pitch and things would start to get exciting. Anna put in a fantastic effort leading the steep crux wall, which easily merited WI4 via our central path and in these soft conditions. She looked gripped but kept her composure to place some good screws in tricky positions. Slowly she bridged her way up the steep ice groove, her feet periodically ripping on footholds to maintain excitement. Then she was over the top. I could sense the relief and elation that she was probably feeling. Another hardest ice lead for Anna. Good effort. Highlight of the trip for me.

Beneath the third pitch crux
Halfway there
A moderately steep fourth pitch with a couple of steps led to the top of the route. And I must say, a very good route. Tick.

Near the top of the fourth pitch
Possibly the only route of the trip? We would have to wait and see...

We started the abseil descents. No bolted anchors as with Cogne, no trees laced with abseil tat as with Rjukan. Setesdal definitely felt a lot further from the beaten track. Rick made fine work of rigging the abseils. But the final abseil was a bit naughty to say the least. Rick disappeared over an unexpected overhang a matter of metres from the abseil point and promptly landed in an equally unexpected tree directly beneath. The ropes now unavoidably passed under the branches of the tree to form a 'Z' shape. A tricky arrangement for pulling ropes through. Anna was the unfortunate one to go last but unlike the rest of us realised unlikelihood of retrieving the ropes. Already they were impossible to pull through from underneath the tree but fortunately free-able from a more lateral position where Anna made an intermediate abseil to continue her descent. Double good effort. The last abseil is never a good time for ropes to get stuck. A couple of the other guys on the trip also were caught out by this abseil in similar fashion the following day - by the sounds of it to a much greater extent.

We managed some single pitch climbing at the roadside Bykle crag next day. Not particularly inspiring climbing but the ice condition was decent enough. And it was good to see Anna getting some more good leads in. 4 degrees by the time was were back at the car...

Anna leading Right Wall (WI4)
It was above freezing throughout the following night. A large puddle had formed from melting snow close to our apartment chalet. It seemed silly and dangerous to try and climb anything the following morning and so we went for a drive. To my surprise a number of routes lower down the valley looked fully formed. Code Red and A Few Good Men (both WI6+) looked positively terrifying. Tsunami (WI5), and Beyond the Fringe (WI4+) also both looked formed from a distance. Ride the Punami (WI3+) looked doable. Further up the valley Hovden Falls (WI3) looked good. It might all be academic of course unless the temperatures sort themselves out soon.

The main thing I took from the trip was inspiration. Two months from now I will be moving to Norway to live and the prospects for next winter's climbing are already slightly mind-blowing to think about. Setesdal will be an easy weekend trip for me. Rjukan will be day trip-able. Hopefully payback for all the Friday night fighting through traffic within the M25 that I've had to do in recent years in order to go climbing.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Central Gully (III), Great Gable

There looked to be some good freeze-thaw cycles going on in the Lakes over the preceding 48 hours so a trip to the Lakes on Sunday looked potentially worthwhile. Worst case scenario was that we would end up at The Works if things proved warmer than expected. With a freezing level forecast at 700-800m Gable seemed an obvious choice. Maybe some mixed routes would be in nick, however I anticipated the thaw cycles would have stripped the buttresses. We went with an open mind with the view to climbing whatever might be in condition.

The buttresses looked black on the approach, except towards the top, so gullies provisionally looked the best bet. We aimed for Central Gully. The only problem was that the snow was still soft amongst the boulder field directly beneath the crag. Ominous signs that we might be walking back to the car shortly. Maybe 50-100m below the start of the route the snow started to firm up and our optimism improved.

I wasn't convinced that any mixed routes would be in condition but Engineer's Chimney looked worth a closer look all the same. From a distance there looked to be plenty of white stuff and possibly be some ice going on. I traversed across, peered up, saw plenty of signs of winter but remained unconvinced. Largely on the basis that all the turf my immediate vicinity looked unfrozen and damp. It looked a day for gully bashing.

The first 50-60m of Central Gully proved tough going. The snow coverage wasn't giving many hints as to where the cracks were hidden in order to find protection and the snow consistency was a little unnerving. Some places it was bomber hard, other places only the top surface had formed into neve, below which the snow remained unstable. I backed off the first steep step after the thin coverage of neve fell apart to reveal nothing useful below. Fortunately the snow slope immediately left was better formed. Not good enough to blindly heave on axes but fine provided I kicked in firm ladder of steps and just used my axes for support. Only the outer few inches of snow felt really firm and always I could feel my steps moving down an inch or two as I packed them down for reassurance. I found no runners on the first pitch but after my most recent winter outing this was feeling the norm.

We suspected the second step wouldn't be much better than the first so Anna climbed a short, cramped chimney to the left, which looked to be in better condition. And possibly more fun if cramped chimneys are your thing. Still not much in the way of gear though... Possibly the crux of the climb.

Snow conditions were clearly improving with height though and the final pitch leading to the headwall was a joy with first time placements into firm neve the whole way. With so much neve on offer the lack of frozen turf was irrelevant. One solid piece of gear at half height as well, which felt a real treat to find. Maybe the greatest pleasure though was the weather with clear skies and virtually no wind. Would this count as a proper winter ascent without storm force winds to accompany?

Anna led the traverse right and then continued up the final gully. Conditions had been perfect in the upper 2/3 of climbing and today there was no reason to run from the summit. Sometimes when you are not sure what to expect from conditions, a positive outcome feels all the more rewarding.

Great Gable
Anna climbing towards the headwall
The traverse right
The final gully
And of course the views!